The latest film from Spanish auteur Pedro Almodovar is a return to the female-centric focus of his best films, certainly after the silliness of his last movie "I'm so Excited". However there was more to enjoy in that flick than in this subdued and rather downbeat melodrama. If this film is an indication of a new mature phase of dramatic restraint on the part of the director, it's not altogether an enticing prospect for die-hard fans such as myself.
Don't get me wrong the film is well-made, well designed and photographed, and certainly well-acted. It is also not uninvolving, but it is ultimately unsatisfying. So what is missing? The storytelling is elegant but restrained, with a total absence of Almodovar's usual playfulness, and therefore it is rather cold. The open ending is not the problem, since the probable outcome remains obvious, but we are left without much in the way of explanation or insight.
There is really only one main character Julieta -- played by two different actresses, Emma Suarez as the present-day woman who becomes the film's narrator and Adriana Ugarte as her younger self. Based on three consecutive short stories by the Canadian Nobel prize-winning author Alice Munro in her 2004 collection 'Runaway', Almodovar originally intended this as his first English-speaking film. However he backed down and has transposed the action to various parts of Spain. We learn that Julieta is long estranged from her beloved daughter Antia. A chance meeting with Bea, an old friend of Antia's, causes her to cancel plans to move to Portugal with her new lover and to return to the building where they once lived, in the hope that that Antia will somehow find her and make contact. She starts to write a long letter beginning with how she met Antia's fisherman father on an eventful train journey, how she sought him out after realising she was pregnant, and their early years together with their daughter before his untimely death while the child was away at summer camp (where she met her supposedly BFF Bea). The film is a tale of love and loss, but never totally grabs the viewer in its fierce drama or satisfactorily explains Antia's complete withdrawal from both Bea and her mother. We can but guess at part of her motivation from the odd hint carelessly dropped in the narrative.
We never actually see the adult Antia so the film's poster presents a conundrum. The young Julieta has a bush of short blonde hair while the young-teen Antia is brunette. The poster recreates a scene from the movie where the daughter helps her distraught young mother from her bath. On the poster, but not in the movie as far as I can recall, she somehow morphs into the careworn older Julieta, falling into the arms of her dark-haired daughter with the young Julieta's face. Now that would have been a sweet Almodovarian touch had it happened!
The only holdover from the director's usual stock company is the memorable Rossy de Palma, playing the fisherman's housekeeper. It was good to see her again, but her Picasso-like features have now softened with age, reminding me how much time has passed since I first started watching Almodovar's amazing filmography. I can but hope that this latest movie is but a blip amongst his more distinctive output.